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The BIM Steam Roller

Building Information Modeling (BIM) will dominate big architectural firms within five years, and the profession in general within 10, says experts. And it will lead architects to rethink their business models.

The difference between CAD and BIM is the difference between drawings and models. In a Building Information Model, the plans are an assembly of intelligent objects linked to a database that includes pricing, specs, water and energy use, and much more. BIM is intended to ease collaboration between team members -- architects, engineers and contractors -- and greatly improve accuracy and save money by automatically generating construction documents.

Benefits come with challenges
There are challenges to overcome before those benefits are widely enjoyed. Proficiency and training in Building Information Modeling software (NavisWorks, Bentley, Autodesk, Vico and Tekla) are a must, and software integration among team members can be problematic. Giving team members access to the model raises liability concerns. And the automation of documents, while improving productivity, may cost firms some revenue.

The technology challenges are straightforward. Software companies are working to ease integration and develop mobile apps that will let team members access the model from the field without having full BIM capability. Young architects are being trained in BIM. Manufacturers (including Moen) are offering downloadable product files for use and ease of adoption into specifications created for use with BIM software programs.

On the liability front, contracts are evolving much as they did to accommodate design-build. "Contracts used to be a roadblock to design-build, but they have caught up," says Gordon Holness, president of the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE). "The same will happen with BIM."

One reason for this progress is the number of organizations advocating for BIM. For instance, ASHRAE and the International Code Council are both developing software that will read a Building Information Model to determine compliance with their standards, says Holness. Another factor is "green" building. "BIM will allow efficient energy modeling, and documentation to meet LEED and other programs," says Stan Cairns, a partner with Cope Linder Architects in Philadelphia.

BIM is changing staffing and business models
The ultimate driver is BIM's proven time and money savings. Plaza Construction, a large Manhattan AEC firm, recently completed two nearly identical buildings. In one building only, it created a model for the lobby area. The time needed to solve design conflicts in that area shrank from 12 weeks to two, a savings that Plaza's Christopher Mills calls typical.

BIM also cuts staffing needs. "I used to have a 10- to 20-person staff that did $400,000 to $500,000 per year in business," says Finith Jernigan, a Maryland architect and author of BIG BIM little bim, an award-winning book on the subject. "Now I can do the same volume with two or three people."

In fact, most BIM users report better ROI improvements, more efficient processes, fewer errors and better project outcomes. But taking advantage of those benefits may require architects to adapt their business practices and to think creatively about revenue. "I now price for value, not for hours," says Jernigan. "My fees have to be competitive, so I have gotten more efficient in the way I work."

Understand your real value
A re-emphasis on creativity may indeed be the key to thriving in a BIM-dominated world. The major benefit of a Building Information Model is greater ability to visualize the physical, geometric representation of the building and analyze how the building's systems work. "When I ask architects what their biggest value is to the client, they often talk about their drawings and specifications," says Holness. But with BIM commodifying that part of the process, architects need to understand that their creativity is their real value. "What the owner wants is your intellectual property. The rest are just illustrations of that."

For more information on BIM
The American Institute of Architects:

Construction Specifications Institute:

The Whole Building Design Guide:

Journal of Building Information Modeling:

BIG BIM little bim: The Practical Approach to Building Information Modeling: